SALT LAKE CITY — President Bush is embattled and his administration is adrift in the second-term doldrums. But three years is an eternity in politics and much can happen to change the landscape before Americans vote on his successor.
Dominating all is Iraq and how it turns out. Saddam Hussein's villainy will probably be in the headlines again as his trial enters a new phase. There are intriguing hints about political overtures from some terrorist groups to the interim government. An election two weeks hence will determine the makeup of a new parliament. All these events could have a significant bearing on the future of Iraq.
Aside from Iraq, historians looking at the president's foreign policy record will decide how well he handled relations with Iran and North Korea in the last years of his term, as well as a possible regime change in Cuba, and a possible challenge from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
At home the president will take on significant problems like illegal immigration and Social Security reform.
So it is much too early to assess his legacy. But not too early for the possible successor candidates, both Democratic and Republican, to be dreaming dreams about moving into the White House.
On the Democratic side, Sen. John Kerry is said to be mulling a second run for the presidency but is dogged by a reputation for indecisiveness and opportunism. His vice-presidential running mate, John Edwards, is weighing his own prospects, whatever Mr. Kerry decides. Sen. Joe Biden is knowledge able in the area of foreign affairs but is thought by many to be more suited for the post of secretary of State in a Democratic administration rather than occupant of the White House. Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, who would have major support from Hispanics, is another as yet undeclared Democratic contender. Hillary Clinton has earned her dues as a diligent member of the Senate. She has been moving steadily to the political center in a bid to shed her liberal image, supporting the war in Iraq and coming out against an immediate withdrawal. She is still seen as a front- runner to win the Democratic party's nomination, even though many pundits believe she could not then win the presidency.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain has been a stalwart supporter of Mr. Bush's hold-the-line-and-don't-quit position on Iraq, even arguing for committing more American troops. But he is independent and outspoken on a number of other issues and is not beloved by all members of his party. However, as a prisoner of war who suffered torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, he has great credibility and standing with many Americans.
Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks, earned the respect of many Americans for his take-charge stance at that time, rallying his city's police and firemen, and bolstering the courage of New Yorkers at a critical point in the city's history. But that was four years ago, there are three more years to go before the presidential election, and there is a question as to whether the Giuliani legend would still be as bright in 2008.
One of the most intriguing prospects is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She has never held elected office, has never been in party politics, has no political infrastructure and as yet no piggy bank containing the multimillions of dollars it takes to run for presidential office. Yet she is ranked as one of the most respected women today in America. Could this translate into presidential charisma, drawing substantial support from African-American and women voters? Her fate is closely linked with that of Bush, whose policies in Iraq and elsewhere she has faithfully defended and articulated. Peace between Palestinians and Israelis on her watch, and stability in Iraq encouraging steps toward democracy elsewhere in the Islamic world, conceivably could catapult her off the front cover of Time magazine and into big-time politics.
Nor can we overlook Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. The white knight, who plucked the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City out of scandal and propelled them to financial and international success, is handsome and fast on his feet. He has also proved in a Democratic state like Massachusetts that he can win both Republican and Democratic votes. The question is whether his Mormon religion, which was no deterrent to voters in that state, would be a major question mark with the evangelical Christian right in a national contest.
Early days but intriguing prospects.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.